I’m obviously a big fan of Halloween fiction. At its best, it does more than just capture the seasonal feelings surrounding the beloved festival; it tells us something about ourselves – why we have an autumnal celebration of fear, what in us enjoys that…or even needs it.
For a few years – before I became an elderly parent’s caregiver and my writing time was pared down to nearly nil – I produced annual Halloween novellas. These would usually come about when Roy Robbins, who owned Bad Moon Books, would write me in June and say, “Let’s do a Halloween novella! Can you come up with one in…umm…a month?” Because I love challenges, I’d say, “Sure.” I usually had no idea what to do when I said, “Sure.”
I ended up doing four Halloween novellas, three for Roy/Bad Moon Books, and one for Journalstone (where I was thrilled to work with the late, great Norman Rubenstein as my editor). I approached each of them very differently; I never want to duplicate myself. Given that I’ve also done a number of Halloween-themed short stories (and – arguably, perhaps – one novel, since Netherworld begins and ends on October 31st), it wasn’t always easy to find a way to write about the holiday at length that I hadn’t already explored. But I think I managed it, and I’m quite proud of these four works.
If you’re looking for something fun to read this October, then indulge me while I describe each of these and perhaps one will appeal to you.
The Samhanach (2010) – This was my first Halloween novella, and it was ridiculously ambitious – my goal was no less than a fictionalized history of the holiday in a hundred pages. To attempt this, I chose to center the story around a Scottish Halloween goblin legend I’d referenced in my non-fiction book The Halloween Encyclopedia. I’d found very little about this demon – the Samhanach – except one brief mention of its shapeshifting abilities, which I knew would work well for my story. I encompassed three-hundred years of history in the story; I described how the celebration had shifted from a night of Scottish fortune-telling parties to modern-day American trick or treat, jack-o’-lanterns and costumes. But – because that wasn’t ambitious enough! – I also wanted to delve into the deeper meaning of Halloween, of why it continues to occupy such a prominent place in culture. The novella involves the kidnapping of a modern child by the eponymous demon and a mother’s desperate hunt; it climaxes in an otherworldly, archetypal dark forest, the one that I believe is buried in the human subconscious and is the birthplace of many of our fears.
The Samhanach must have worked, because it appeared on many “Best of the Year” lists and was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Long Fiction.
The cover art by Frank Walls may be my personal favorite from any of my books.
Hell Manor (2012) – When Roy asked me to do another Halloween novella, I had just finished writing Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, and was still astonished at how much the haunted attractions industry had exploded in popularity over the last few years. Given that, I knew this novella should deal with a haunted house; I thought it would be fun to incorporate a lot of what I’d learned about the design and operation of haunted attractions. Because my ultimate fantasy for a real haunted attraction would be to incorporate magicians performing illusions throughout, I added that element; I also love noir (film and fiction), and opted to tell this in first person in a noir style. The story is about a haunted house invaded by ancient Celtic magicians on Halloween night; there’s a femme fatale, lots of haunted attractions lore, and a high body count. And as a bit of an inside joke on The Samhanach, the story once again finishes in that mystical dark forest.
The cover art by Phillip Simpson manages to capture the whimsy, the femme fatale, and the blood.
Summer’s End (2013) – This is the one I think of as “the crazy book”. Summer’s End was born when I read a news story about an ancient scroll that had recently been unearthed with a Celtic burial that significantly changed certain facts in our understanding of Celtic history. “What if,” I thought, “that scroll had been all about Samhain, the Celtic precursor to Halloween, and had changed everything we think we know about the Celtic New Year?” I knew I wanted the central character to be a Halloween expert brought in to consult on this momentous discovery, and the astonishment that person would experience…which would turn to fear, when they also discover that Druidical magic practices were real. I started writing the piece with a middle-aged female protagonist who is indeed a Halloween expert, but so much of myself was playing into the character that I finally decided to simply make it me. At first, that idea made me very uncomfortable – how honest was I willing to be? – but that was why I knew it was the right way to go.
Summer’s End is a sore spot for me now. Although it received some incredibly gratifying blurbs from two authors I have tremendous respect for (Gary A. Braunbeck and Ray Garton) and some excellent reviews, it had one mixed review that frankly made me a little nuts. I’d never had one of my books reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly (although some of my short fiction had been praised when PW had reviewed the anthologies the stories appeared in), and I was thrilled when I found out they’d be reviewing the novella…but unfortunately they referred to the book as “self-righteous” at one point in the review, an epithet I’m still puzzled and irked by (in fairness to PW, they also praised the book as an “ambitious marriage of postmodernism and horror” and said that its “malignant spirits evoke chills”).
There was one other thrilling plus to Summer’s End, though: Norm at one point had asked me if I had an ideal cover artist in mind. I responded, “Well, somebody like Harry O. Morris would be great.” Norm said, “Why don’t we try Harry O. Morris?” We did; it turned out Harry had some pieces that were already completed that he thought might work, and when I saw the piece of a woman walking through a sort of organic portal, I thought it perfectly captured the mood of Summer’s End. I’m so happy to have a book out there with a Harry O. Morris cover.
The Devi’s Birthday (2014) – When Roy asked me to do one more Halloween novella for him, I wanted to do something that I knew would really please Roy personally. Roy’s life had changed considerably over the time I’d known him – he’d decided to enter seminary school and become a pastor. Although I don’t share his faith, I wanted this novella to celebrate that part of Roy. I took the fundamentalist Christian name for Halloween – “The Devil’s Birthday” – and played with that. The end result is the story of Sathariel, a fallen angel seeking redemption by battling against her former master Satan on Halloween night. I also played a little with the urban fantasy formula – something I’ve never done before – by including a romantic element and lots of dark magic.
The cover art made me happy because it was by a dear friend, Greg Chapman, who’d been the artist on my graphic novel (co-authored with Rocky Wood), Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times.
All of the titles above are available in print or e-book form.
Thank you for reading this far, and Happy Halloween!